The history of the State Library of Victoria

How to research the history, development, architecture, collections and management of the State Library of Victoria.

Introduction

Commissioned to celebrate the Library's jubilee, the Domed Reading Room was designed by Norman G. Peebles of the firm, Bates, Peebles and Smart. In 1909, the Library trustees appointed JW and DA Swanson to build the new reading room.

It was officially opened by the Governor-General Lord Denman on 14 November 1913. Designed to emulate the British Museum in London and the Library of Congress in Washington, the octagonal building consists of a basement, ground floor, first floor reading room and four gallery levels. The building occupies a site 220 feet square and is built of brick, ferro-concrete and glass, and has double walls forming an annulus 16 feet wide. The Dome is 114 feet in diameter and 114 feet high. The original skylights in the Dome were covered in copper sheathing in 1959 because of water leakage problems.

The grand staircase linking the foyer to the Domed Reading Room and Queen's Hall was part of the Dome development. The stairs include white Sicilian marble and grey/black Buchan limestone. 

Read more in the Conservation management plan by Lovell Chen (available online), and the articles by Miles Lewis listed below.

Renovations to the Domed Reading Room commenced in 1999 as part of the Library’s major redevelopment program. It was reopened in July 2003, renamed as the La Trobe Reading Room. It now houses the Library's Australiana collection.

In 2012-13 the Library celebrated the centenary of the Dome. The Dome100 website includes the history of the Dome's architecture, and stories from people who have been inspired by the Dome.

Sources

Dunstan, Keith, 15 November 1988, ‘A marvellous disaster for 75 years', The Age,  pp 1, 4.

Article commemorating the 75th anniversary of the State Library's Domed Reading Room. Discusses the condition of the Library, the hunt for a new building and the proposal to build a new museum on the Yarra Bank to allow the State Library to take over the entire library-museum site.

Heinrichs, P. (July 13, 2003 ). Incredible lightness of reading  Sunday Age p. 2

Journalist's impression of the refurbished Dome, includes staff interview

Lewis, Mary, Jul-Oct 2003, '"Room for 2000000 volumes and 550 readers": the opening of the Domed Reading Room', State Library of Victoria news, pp. 2-4.

Lewis, Miles, December 2013, ‘Building the Dome: an illustrated account', The La Trobe journal, no 92, pp 4-51, [online]

Lewis, Miles, Spring 2003, ‘The Dome', The La Trobe journal, no 72, pp 41-61, [online]

Discusses construction, design weaknesses and the distinctive character of the space. Provides a list of references, including seven articles from the journal Building.

Lewis, Miles, 2004, 'A house divided 1890 - 1918' in Bates Smart : 150 years of Australian architecture edited by Philip Goad, Thames & Hudson,  pp 66 - 111

Chapter includes the building of the Domed Reading Room pp. 102 - 111; includes plans and photos.

Lodewycks, Axel, February 1990, ‘Damned by a dome: the State Library of Victoria scandal', Age monthly review pp 20-22, Family History & Newspaper Room - on microfilm.

Another similar article by the same author, 'Our library 'damned by a dome', was published in The Age on October 15 1989 p14 and is available online.

'Melbourne's new library, an imposing work, the great dome', 24 June 1911, The Argus,  p 7.

Article with illustrations showing the Domed Reading Room under construction.

‘One of the world's big things: the reinforced concrete dome of Melbourne's Library', 12 June 1911, Building: the magazine for the architect, builder, property owner and merchant, pp 50-54, Family History & Newspaper Room - on microfilm.

Technical article written at the time of construction, two years before the Dome's completion in 1913, discussing the design and construction of the ‘great' Domed reading room, from an architectural perspective. Provides measurements and discusses the use of reinforced concrete. Includes illustrations of the timber trusses and the Dome, showing timber centering ready for taking concrete. The tone of the article is one in awe of the construction of the Dome, "the greatest on earth".

Public Library, Museums and National Gallery (Vic), [1913], Opening of the reading rooms: Friday, 14th November, 1913, printed by A H Massina, [online]

This is a programme of the opening of the Great Reading Room (Domed Reading Room) by the Governor-General, Lord Denham.

'Returning the Dome to Victoria: the Dome festival', Jul-Oct 2003, State Library of Victoria News, pp. 6-7.

Saunders, David A L, March 1959, ‘The reinforced concrete dome of the Melbourne Public Library, 1911', Architectural science review, pp.39-46

Lengthy article discussing the history, design and construction of the concrete dome over the Domed Reading Room from an architectural perspective. Plans of the dome and reinforcement for the corner ribs of the dome are reproduced in the article.

A copy of this article is held in the Local History File entitled ‘Melbourne, Vic. Libraries. State Library of Victoria'.

'The State Library building', October 1970, La Trobe Library journal, vol 2, no 6,  pp.31-35, [online]

Discusses the history of the Domed Reading Room and the architectural influences on its design. Edmund La Touche Armstrong's vision for the Domed Reading Room is included as well as faults and weaknesses in the design of the building as perceived by Leigh Scott. Includes extracts from the report of Morris Miller's speech in The Argus after the opening on 14 November 1913.

Leigh Scott was previously employed by the Public Library before becoming Librarian at the University of Melbourne and his memoirs entitled ‘Mainly from memory' are held in the Australian Manuscripts Collection at the State Library of Victoria. 

The Dome in pop culture

The music video for Faker's song 'Hurricane' was filmed in the Dome.

The Leftovers (season 3 episode 4), the 2010 film Don't Be Afraid of the Dark and the South Korean game show Running Man (2014 season) also featured scenes filmed in the Dome.

Ballarat Town Hall's historic collections include a wood inlay table created by Mr E Mannin of Fitzroy. The table features a depiction of the Library's exterior, looking across the front lawn, portico and Dome. The table was donated to the City of Ballarat in 1954.

Virtual tour

You can take a virtual walk through the Dome and Dome galleries using our virtual tour.

Images

Many images of the Dome (La Trobe Reading Room) have been digitised and added to the Library's catalogue. This includes pictures of the initial construction, and the refurbishment in 1999-2003. To find these images, search the catalogue using the words domed reading room library.

[Domed reading room, State Library of Victoria], H11626

Ribbon of words

Included in the Dome redevelopment was a band of quotations circling the room.

Originally known as the Dome Words Project, these literary quotations were unveiled when the refurbished Dome was opened in July 2003.

Harboe Ree, Cathrine, Spring 2003, 'A ribbon of words: wall quotations in the La Trobe Reading Room', La Trobe Journal, no 72,  pp 72-79 [online].

Lists quotes with authors, and gives an account of the planning of the project. Does not include full citations for the quotations.

Garner, Helen, Jul-Oct 2003, '"A smell of old reading...": Helen Garner remembers the Domed Reading Room', State Library of Victoria News, p. 5.

An extract from this piece appears in the ribbon of words.

Featured in the Level 4 gallery overlooking the Dome is a quote starting 'After all anybody is as their land and air is', ending with 'it is not curiously not necessary…'. This is taken from 'Lecture 4' by Gertrude Stein, published in Narration in 1935 (see pages 46-49).

Desk plaques

The State Library Foundation's Your Place In Our History programme offers the opportunity to name desks or tables or sponsor glass panes in the Dome, in return for a donation.

The Library's Foundation maintains a list and plan of all of the name plaques that are attached to the desks in the Dome.